I have been in the throes of grinding through a heavy course load towards a third subject area for teacher certification. And I don’t mind admitting that it’s been an exhausting boatload of work as I’ve tried to crank out as many credits as humanly possible in as short a time as possible.
You see, at my age, I simply do not want to spend 2 years pursuing another degree, so finishing in a timely manner (as quickly as possible, in other words) was of the utmost importance to me.
And that’s why I was so delighted to find out about and enroll in Western Governors University. This is the non-profit, on-line college and grad school that several western state governments created as a joint venture to serve the growing need for flexible, affordable education options in the fields of education, nursing, business, and information technology. It offers courses and degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
Unlike many for-profit, on-line schools that have come under such criticism for their predatory tuition and lending practices and their lousy educational and employment outcomes, Western Governors (WGU) is, in fact, highly regarded and not a diploma mill at all.
It is also truly both flexible and affordable. In fact, the flexibility is beyond anything I could have hoped for. And as for affordability, it easily rivals community colleges for its value and low cost.
Here’s how it works.
WGU is what is called a competency-based program, which means that the students can decide when to take assessments and turn in course-required papers as they feel ready to do so. There is generally no prescribed exam schedule or paper submission deadline or specific number of hours a student must spend in class or watching lectures, etc.
The only constraints would be the availability of a test proctor (more about this later) or the student’s own personal schedule or motivation impacting study time and slowing down the progress. Students are free to study as much or as little as they'd like, to take a light course load, or to pile on the credits as they feel able.
In my own case, I knew I had to get through as much coursework as possible during the summer months when I am not working in a classroom.
I looked at the course syllabus for my chosen 25-credit program of study and decided, based on my work ethic and discipline, that the allotted/standard time frame of 3 semesters, or 18 months (WGU has 6-month terms) was way more than I would need to complete the program.
I calculated that if I put my mind to it, I could finish in a single semester.
Now, there are a couple of things to take into account in my approach that are different from the average person's. First, my kids are grown and I have summers off, so that makes a big difference in the amount of time I have available for study. But I also am known to work very hard, and I am not at all averse to the idea of putting in 12 hour days and even more on something that requires my attention and focus. I do that on a regular basis in my work life anyway. And I’ve certainly done that for projects on our real estate properties, as well, throughout my adult life.
Still, while I tend to be a perfectionist about my work and my studies, always striving for that "A" grade, I knew that the time constraints I imposed on myself would force me to adjust my expectations. At WGU, they use what is essentially a pass/fail grading system, with “pass” being the equivalent of a "B". If you “meet the standard” or “meet the requirement”, you have passed with the equivalent of a "B". If you exceed the standard or requirement, that would be considered an "A". I told myself firmly that I would have to be content with just meeting the standard.
Sometimes good enough is good enough.
So that's the background and mindset behind the strategizing for my study program. With all those conditions and considerations, I figured that I would be able to get through the 25-credit, 8-course master’s level certification program in 3 months. I planned to start in early June by easing into the process with the first 2-credit course while I was still teaching.
And then once my summer break began, I would increase the intensity exponentially to get through as many courses as I could before school started in the fall.
At WGU, semesters begin on the first of every month, and the clock for a semester begins on the day you activate your first course. I started formally on June 1st, but because WGU gave me access to most of my first course materials about 10 days before that, I was able to get a head start on my reading and paper writing before that start date. As a result, by the time June 1st rolled around, I had already completed all the reading for the first course, as well as the rough drafts of all the required papers.
I was off and running. As it turned out, I was able to finish 2 courses before the end of June, including one particularly challenging, 4-credit class that took me most of the month while I was still working. It took a lot of late nights, full weekends of study, and powering through exhausting classroom days to get through it, but I managed to successfully complete it before the end of school.
Once school was out, I upped the pace considerably, completing almost a course a week. I accomplished this by treating school as a job and putting in long hours to get the reading and papers done. In the end, I managed to fulfill all the requirements for 6 of the 8 courses before the end of July. I then took a break and traveled for a couple of weeks in August, before completing the 7th course upon my return.
The 8th class required a 30-hour field practicum (more about this later), which meant I could not start that until September when I was in school again. I was too late to try to find a field position in one of the local summer school programs. Had I been a bit more organized, that would have been a very viable alternative.
As to that fieldwork requirement, I have to say that this was probably the one area where I had any problems with the program at all. At WGU, unlike the school where I got my original teaching certifications, it is the responsibility of the student to find the field teaching experience as well as a supervising teacher/mentor to observe and to sign off on the necessary paperwork.
This is probably because WGU draws a student body from all over the country and indeed the world, and it would be impossible for them to have relationships with every district in the students’ far-flung geographic areas. So they offer advice and guidance, but they do not anything to help find the actual placement for students.
Fortunately, WGU also allows an administrator and any teacher with an administrator’s certification to act as a mentor. I ended up enlisting the help of my department head for my required classroom observations and evaluations, even though the area of certification I was pursuing was not her particular area of expertise.
That’s a testament to WGU’s flexibility and a godsend to harried students. It makes sense, too, since administrators are typically the ones doing classroom teacher observations in most schools anyway. So, allowing a student to use them does not lower standards at all, but sure makes life easier for those pursuing a degree. I was very grateful for this.
Another major positive about WGU is that the school also provides all the books on-line for free, included in the price of tuition. As any college student can attest, that’s a huge savings right there, and I was very glad to take advantage of it.
However, in all honesty, I really prefer to hold a book in my hands so that I can flip back and forth for reference. So I ended up buying 6 of the textbooks on-line. I was able to get them used for very good prices, though, so did not spend more than about $100 for all of them together. Considering that one of them alone was considerably more expensive than that new, I was quite happy with my purchases. I used Amazon to buy them.
Now, I am going to freely acknowledge that there were days over the summer when I found the task I had undertaken to be more than a little overwhelming. Sometimes it was an outright slog to get through the readings and the papers and to study for the exams.
On more than one occasion, I almost gave up on my goal of finishing most of the coursework over the summer. I tried to counter that negativity by giving myself a little break and some down time for the night and part of the next day after I passed a course. That worked well most of the time. And if I needed an extra day to just chill and recuperate from a particularly tough paper, I'd take it as a mental health day.
This enabled me to stick to my schedule, so I could put my head down and power through the work, using my trip in August as an incentive and reward for meeting my goals.
It also helped that WGU assigns each student a professor as mentor to help guide you through the program as a whole. That’s in addition to the course professors who are very available via email, chats, or messaging to answer any questions about the specific course material.
I had a very good mentor, who checked in with me regularly, and who always responded very promptly to any questions I sent via email.
As to the actual work product involved in the courses, most of them required three to four 7-20 page papers. The papers were fairly straightforward assignments. In my program, the resources offered included sample papers and rubrics, so it was relatively easy to figure out what I had to do. And if I had a question, I simply asked one of the course professors and typically got a response within a very short time. They were extremely helpful in clearing up confusion and providing guidance about such things as citations and sources.
Each paper had to first be submitted to Turn It In, an educational software application that scans documents and compares them to millions of on-line sources to check for both accidental and deliberate plagiarizing and outright cheating. If the document does not meet the WGU criteria for original work, it is rejected, and the student must make changes before resubmitting.
Beyond that, I had zero issues with the papers I was required to write. They were a great deal of work, but there were no surprises in completing and submitting them. The process was very smooth and easy.
So, What About Those Tests?
Out of the 8 courses I took, only two of them required tests as part of their coursework assessments. Of course, I had the final, national Praxis certification test I had to pass to earn my credentials, but that came only after I had completed 22 credits with WGU. (I will add that I felt very well prepared for the test when I took it. And in fact, I passed with nearly a perfect score.
You can schedule the test time well in advance, or try to do it on short notice if you suddenly feel you’re ready to get it over with. I never had a problem finding an available proctor, but I have heard it can be an issue at certain busy times of the year. For me, scheduling a test was seamless and easy.
If you’ve never taken an on-line, proctored exam before, let me explain a bit about the procedure as it is at WGU.
Once you are connected face-to-face with the proctor service, the proctor will ask you for ID verification, and will remotely take charge of your computer to ensure that no windows are open other than the ones needed for the test.
The proctor will also ask you to use the camera monitor that WGU provides free of charge to show them all around your test location, including under the table/desk and a 360 degree view of the room. They will ask you to remove any materials from the test area.
They will then ask you to aim the camera so that they have a view of you and your desk work surface during the test. You are given an allotted exam time and must finish before then. Once you indicate you are finished, there is no reopening the test, and the proctor closes everything out. You can then log into your WGU dashboard to see if you passed or not.
All in all I have to say that my experience with WGU was an overwhelmingly positive one. It is a school that offers very real, solid value and realistic flexibility that truly enables anyone interested in furthering their credentials in the areas of teaching, nursing, IT, or business to do so.
In my case, I was able to earn 25 credits for less than $3600 and complete them in about 5 months. And my WGU credentials paid off almost immediately. I have just recently started a new job at a new school with a more positive work climate. I am also earning substantially more money and have terrific benefits besides.
I think my self-imposed tough semester at WGU was time and money well spent. I recommend it enthusiastically and without reservation. Check it out for yourself and see what opportunities you can find.